Art <3 Stories – Jack Porcello – I

Our next Art ❤ Stories storyteller is Jack Porcello, also known as Roc City Roller Derby’s Sinister Minister (SinMin for short). I’ve known Jack since asking him to perform our wedding (8 years ago) and we have become close friends.  If there’s anyone for whom story permeates every facet of their career, it’s Jack.  As you will see as he tells his tale …

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Part One

My first introduction to story was actually learning to read. When I was very young. I think it might have even been preschool age. There was a book of Hans Christian Anderson stories in our house. I still am a big fan of those stories. I was very young, and they were very tragic stories. It was kind of disturbing for somebody my age to learn stories this way. The thing is that, later on, when Disney redid most of those stories, I was so disappointed because of that. But between Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm and Aesop and all that… I really began to pursue story as a means to define people around me. I like to look at myself as a conduit for others. I very seldom tell my own story, in fact this is probably the first time in any sort of formal situation.

I had a very small group of friends and most of the time we were centered around things like music when we were younger. That was pretty much our introduction to the arts back then was music. And it was music as rebellion. But I would always pursue music that told a story. I would listen to the rock theater, the rock opera, you know, The Who and Genesis and all the real theatrical performers. Jethro Tull, to this day, I’m still a big fan of theirs. I really enjoy that kind of stuff. It began with that.

I turned from there to historical things. And I tried to define the circumstances around me. I came from a broken family, my Mom and Dad split up. I was the 3rd of 4 and my younger brother was 6 years younger than me, so I was the baby for a long time. It was really hard for me to get out of that. I was probably spoiled for quite some time. I had to get my head around the fact that I wasn’t spoiled any more. But from there on in I was trying to define myself. Other people were defined mainly through sports in my peer group, at school sports was a big thing. There were people that were in band. I was into music, but I didn’t want the concrete, established situation of being in a band. I was in groups, later on, but when I was younger, in school, I didn’t want to get into that.

I discovered politics fairly early on. I was drawn to politics from an ideological point of view more than anything else, so I started studying ancient politics, the origins of politics – Socrates, Plato, the establishment of Calvin as the father of democracy, which brought me into religion.

As a bit of an aside, I was also very actively involved in the church. Very actively involved in the church when I was younger. The Catholic church. I was drawn to the liturgy, the ritual, it was really exciting for me. Even though it didn’t really have a lot of establishment, to me, in anything factual. To me it was all symbolic. That was so much fun. And plus I got to skip out of school early to go and do religious things. I was able to be a bit of a rude little boy – I was always called to come and do the early morning masses and part of the Catholic ritual was that the altar boy would ring the bell whenever you stood or sat or knelt. I would always throw in an extra ring once in a while to confuse people. I’d get really wicked looks from the priest. I got to know the priest very well. We actually had a talk about me going into the priesthood. We had a very long, frank talk.

Usually, when I tell this story to people, and they ask, I say that it was a situation where the priest discovered that I didn’t like the whole idea of celibacy, that that was the reason….. well, it went beyond that. That was part of it, but it also had a lot to do with the fact that I felt that a minister’s position was more of a service thing and the ritual and rite and liturgy and all that was really symbolic, there was nothing historically factual about that. In an aside to me he said, “You know, a majority of people in the Catholic church believe that. A majority of people involved in ministry believe that as well, but we don’t let it on. And if it’s something that you can’t keep to yourself, then it’s probably a good idea for you to look into something else.” Which I began to pursue.

I ended up getting into a really weird situation with a very conservative, very literalist approach. A group that I was able to get involved in because it was very easy and open to get in. I got involved as a minister within this organization, but my presentation from the pulpit was always from the point-of-view of stories. This story from the bible. I would always introduce each of my sermons as “Today, we’re going to look at the story from the bible about this …”. I would try to be as honest as possible, as I consider these to be stories – nothing but stories, nothing but allegory. The symbolism that they represented, in a lot of cases, was very powerful. I was involved in a very powerful church within this denomination for a long time – so I kept a very low profile. I started to minister to the youth, the children, because in that case basically you have to tell stories. That’s all you’re doing is telling stories. Most of the kids that I had were of the age where it was Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Jesus. Eventually you start to learn that these things really aren’t real, but for a while it’s hard for you to differentiate between the fantasy and the reality, because you’re younger and you grow into that. I felt okay telling stories to kids who accept fantasy.

I got an opportunity to take a church further out – on the fringes of the territory that the denomination covered, out in Caledonia. I was there for 5 years and I had a great time. It was really more along the lines of me doing what I wanted to do and anybody was welcome. I was very welcoming towards the gay community, that sort of thing, even though, well gosh, no way was it acceptable for this ministry. People who were living together and not married, that was cool with me, once again a conflict of interest.

I went on vacation and I invited a friend of mine from one of the other churches to come and fill in one Sunday. What I found out afterwords is that this guy was sent to find out what I was doing, and he reported back on me. I was recalled to the other church. Someone else was sent out to the Caledonia church – within a year that church failed. The guy they sent out was very very conservative, very strict, very literalist about the bible, and of course it fell apart. They actually called me back, had a meeting to figure out what to do with the church. Because I was still on probation, the lead minister of the church I was at said “Tell them all just to come back here.” I didn’t want to tell them that, but my situation was tenuous with this ministry so maybe I should just play along for awhile. I did and some people came back, some didn’t. Relationships were seriously damaged.

It bummed me out. It really bothered me to no end. So, I figured: “OK, I”m done.” I told people over at the church that I was done, gave my notice that I was leaving. I had been reinstated as Children’s minister, so I had to leave that.

For a while, I just spent my time getting involved in other projects. One of the projects that came up at the time was at the Mumford library. This was a defining period for me as far as storytelling, outside of either the pulpit or any political situations. The Mumford library was right across the street from where I lived. A cute little library, it was a branch of the Scottsville Free Library – run by a small advisory board. The Mumford library was not getting much circulation. It was open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and one Saturday a month. On Friday nights, what I used to really love about this place, is Friday nights everybody from Mumford, a lot of people, I shouldn’t say everybody from Mumford, but quite a few because it’s a very small hamlet – would come and sit at this roundtable in the common area and just chew the fat. It was like a General Store sort of thing. People would come knitting and they’d talk about what they were doing and share stories. I’d talk about fishing – I was fishing a lot then, I was right on Spring Creek, so I’d talk about fishing stories, which is always important. While we were talking one day, Peg, the clerk there was talking about how that might be the last night, they were talking about closing the library.

“Oh, really?”

“Well, circulation is down.”

“OK, well, what can we do?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, let’s talk with Jackie.” (the director at the time) So Jackie and Peg and I got together and talked about what we could do to keep this place open.

“We have to pick up circulation.”

“How can we do that?”

“How about I do a storytelling program once a month? The first Friday evening of every month. And if I can get people to take out books because they’re themed around the stories I’m telling.”

“If you can bring circulation up to this target level, then we can keep the library alive.”

“OK, great.”

I did a combination of puppets, story, and music. It was amazing! There was a HUGE turnout. There was easily 40 kids in this common room – in the hamlet of Mumford that’s huge. The common area in the library itself, where we used to hang out and chat, was packed parents. They were hanging out, we were in there with their kids and we were having a blast. I was playing the dulcimer, and I was playing with puppets, and talking with them and getting them involved in doing interactive stuff. And then told them: “Here’s a list of the books that the library has, and I want you to take out books. And I want you to get your parents and send them in here, too.”

Somebody went and got everybody’s parents, and I said: “This was a great program. I love doing it here, the kids really seem to enjoy it.”

“Yeah, it was great,” they said. “We heard them laughing from the other room, it sounded like they were having fun.”

“If we don’t do something drastic about the circulation here at this library, they’re going to close it. So I want you to go out there, and I want you to take out books, DVDs (actually at the time it was VHS tapes), whatever you can take out. Just take out media and keep doing it. Come here and use the library – because if you do that, they’ll keep it open.”

How did he do?  Watch for Part Two to find out!  (Gotta love stories with cliffhangers!)

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